There was a murmur of relief as befits their Lordships when the government recently abandoned the reforms to the House of Lords suggested by its former Leader, Tom Strathclyde. Away from the red benches the murmur was not echoed. Many politicians on the green government benches, the media, civic campaigners and even interested members of the public (if they noticed at all) were dismayed at yet another failure to reform one of the least democratic institutions in the world.
Strathclyde’s review had been prompted by defeats for the Government in the Lords last year. Why should 825 or so unelected peers be able to frustrate the agenda of the Conservative Government which had won a decisive victory in May 2015, the argument went. The proposals in themselves were pretty modest but at least were a step in the right direction to protect the primacy of the House of Commons. Unlike 1999 when all but 92 of the hereditary peers were kicked out by Blair, this time it was the Conservatives pushing for change, no longer being able to rely on the convenience of a majority in the upper house on their side.
May's change of heart
Since Strathclyde was asked to look into reforms in those halcyon pre-Brexit times, an awful lot has happened. Theresa May’s government with its new priorities, probably do not feel now is the time to be getting into an argument. The Lords are adept at the trench warfare required to see off legislative reform to their own proceedings. This is strangely incongruous with the early days of her premiership when, off the back of David Cameron’s controversial resignation honours’ list, it was briefed to the press that she was considering Lords reform. She reportedly wanted the vast majority in the House of Lords to be “elected by the many” rather than “selected by the few”.
However, it seems that Number Ten has had a change of heart – perhaps as the scale of the Brexit challenge began to truly sink in over the last few months. In November, Lords Leader Natalie Evans announced that the Government has “no plans for legislation on the issue.” She instead fired a rather weak warning shot across the bows, telling peers the Government would re-consider unless they showed “discipline and self-regulation”.
The Government is relying on the Lords to be more compliant in deference to the uncertain times we live in, as we all struggle to understand what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means. However, with 100 or more Lib Dem peers feeling newly emboldened thanks to the by-election win for Sarah Olney in Richmond Park, Baroness Evans’ threat may fall on deaf ears. They know real reform is highly unlikely in the short term, so don’t bet against further black eyes for the Government in the upper house in the coming year. Those with political issues would do well to invest time educating peers about their cause.
A chequered history
This latest episode is yet another skirmish in the very long-running battle. Few politics watchers, let alone the peers themselves, thought that following Tony Blair’s reforms and the famous deal brokered by Lord Cranborne behind the back of then opposition leader William (now Lord) Hague to keep the 92 hereditaries, that the Lords would have stayed largely intact. However, their Lordships are either mostly hardened political animals with the scars to prove it, or were appointed for tenacity and success in the business or charity world. It is therefore unsurprising they are effective campaigners in their own defence.
But there are some turkeys willing to vote for Christmas (strictly metaphorically speaking). Labour Life Peer Bruce Grocott recently attempted to pass a Bill through the Lords to end the bizarre spectacle of hereditary peer by-elections. In arguably the least democratic election in the world, if a Lib Dem or Labour hereditary peer dies there is an election to replace that person from within the constituency of remaining hereditary party colleagues - sometimes just three voters!
His attempt was thwarted by, you guessed it, hereditary peers. During the debate on the proposals I was rather taken by Labour Peer, Alf Dubs’ suggestion “Why do we not establish a position whereby those members of this House who wish to stay as members relinquish their titles but if they leave the House they can retain their titles?”. Given that some peers only accept the honour so they can have a title and use the Lords as a cosy club for networking, this suggestion has merit and would ensure those who stayed were there for the right reasons.
Despite tinkering over the years, the House is as un-democratic today as it has ever been. It is second only to China’s People’s Congress in size. Peers are still essentially created by the party leaders, despite the occasional publicly nominated appointee (which still has to be ratified by a committee of peers). The average age has gone down and with that a more adversarial and confrontational breed of peer has emerged. To give it’s due, there is no doubt that it has served a valuable democratic purpose, checking the will of the Government and generating relatively apolitical and well-informed debate from experts across important subjects. Some say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.' For many the question would be, why spend a vast chunk of political time and capital on an issue most people simply don't care about. But others still ask, ‘where is the legitimacy?’ For reform campaigners it’s not the individual members who are the problem, but how they got there.
So why is Lords reform so hard? The simple answer is that no one can agree on what would replace it. The Lords also does not sit in splendid isolation. It’s connection to the Crown and the Church of England means that any major reform could have an impact on those two institutions, which for most people is seen as a battle too far. Those with long and rather nerdy memories will re-call the efforts the late Robin Cook went through in 2002 as Leader of the Commons presenting seven options to MPs, none of which made it through. Although one, to have a Lords consisting of 80% elected and 20% appointed, failed by just three votes. Cook later commented that Lords reform was like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, "as it never arrives and some are rather doubtful whether it even exists".
Prospects of reform?
Speaking to a current member of the Lords recently, the prospect of reform seems further away than ever before. This week a committee of peers was established to do more tinkering, including potentially reducing the size of the house. But the Brexit behemoth stands in the way and any proposals would find themselves very low on a very long list. All in, I doubt there is any chance of seeing a new Upper House with a strong elected element in the next generation or two.